So many of Brecht’s dramatic innovations have filtered themselves into the bloodstream of British theatre that it’s difficult to recall the impact of his Berliner Ensemble’s London season of 1956. Like many other playgoers who saw the productions then, I recognised that theatre as I understood it to be was never going to be the same again.
So how to approach The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 2011? Blackeyed Theatre, a company which makes a virtue out of staging lean but not mean ensemble productions, uses Frank McGuinness’ 1997 adaptation for its spring tour with five actors sharing all the parts as the folk tale cum parable of blood maternal greed and surrogate maternal unselfishness evolves from a village dispute over land rights.
Tom Neill’s direction emphasises the symbolic aspects of the stories within stories. Victoria Spearing’s set is basically a door frame above which is suspended a noose and a coat-hanger. Fiona Davis’ masks and costumes allow for quick changes as well as the peopling of the stage for the courtroom scene which is the play’s climax. Throughout Ron McAllister’s haunting score, blending elements of eastern Europe folk music with something more elegiac and Hiberian, illuminates the action.
The heroine (though Brecht might not have called her that) is Grusha, the kitchen skivvy who rescues the governor’s child, left behind as its mother Natella fles the insurrection which has killed her husband. Anna Glynn is very moving as this peasant girl, so determined to do what is right whatever the personal cost. Glynn doubles the (masked) role of the real mother; these are indeed the two sides of a single coin. Her lullaby during the flight north was a marvellous moment of quiet heart-breaking drama.
Ruth Cataroche is the venal but shrewd judge Azdak, to whom falls the case of the disputed child, and Lee Drage plays Simon, the young soldier who loves Grusha, as well as some of his less well-intentioned comrades. Greg Patmore is the Governor and the Prince who overthrows him. All four play a variety of instruments which almost become characters in their own right, while Glynn’s violin doubles as the child itself. Paul Taylor as the story-teller Arkadi sounded, at the second Norwich performance, as though he was suffering from a bad cold, so many of his words were lost.